Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Is Every Conviction a Cult?

I am so used to defending myself against charges concerning my presumed menacing effete elite aesthete postmodern relativism from robot cultists who fancy themselves enlightenment champions because they expect to upload their biological brains into cyberspatial immortality in virtual reality treasure porno caves under the care of benevolent superintelligent robot gods that I find myself quite surprised to be chided occasionally as well for being intolerantly absolutist and blinkered on other days. If I am not mistaken this is one of those days.

Last week I directed readers to a proposed South Dakota law that might legalize the murder of health care providers giving women access to constitutionally protected abortion services by describing killings intended to protect fetuses as "justifiable homicide," as it happens a commonplace rationalization in militant anti-abortion discourse. I declared that the tendency of a generation of pro-choice discourse to shy away from clear statements of the stakes at issue in this debate worked to facilitate anti-abortionists by leaving altogether unchallenged their enabling assumptions. Pro-choice advocates should have been pointing out loudly and often that early-term fetuses are simply not people, but that pregnant women (and health care providers) clearly ARE. Of course, pro-choice advocates overwhelmingly do believe this obviously true statement of fact -- as do many who lackadaisically support anti-abortion politics out of a general squeamishness about discussion of any private health care or sexual matters but who can't be brought to approve recommendations to jail those who undergo or provide abortion procedures thus giving the lie to their supposed belief that fetuses are people since that would make murder and abortion analogous -- a conviction that should be a great strength for pro-choice advocacy.

But institutional pro-choice arguments have tended for a generation (at any rate, so it seems to me) instead to favor technocratic appeals to grounds for compromise in facts such as that actual abortion procedures actually take place much less often whenever family-planning and health care services (including abortion procedures) so despised by anti-abortion militants are readily available to all citizens. All of that is true enough, of course, but scarcely to the point when one is arguing with people who fail to grasp the more elementary facts that pregnant women and abortion providers are fully-fledged people with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and all the rest, while early term fetuses quite obviously are not.

One of the first commenters in the Moot for the post, expressed agreement but also frustration: "I don't even know why this is even an issue."

To this sentiment I commiserated: "This is true of so many issues in the United States -- from evolution, drug policy, capital punishment, taxation, gun control, climate change, infrastructure, militarism, so much more -- almost always because of the lies of Republicans, it is frankly difficult to remain conscientious or even sane in this slaughterhouse.

"I can't help but think of Auden:

"Some think they're strong,
Some think they're smart,
Like butterflies they're torn apart.
America can break your heart."

To this comment long-time Friend of Blog (and also, I might add, personal friend) JimF, wrote this thoughtful demurral from the thrust of my response:
Of course we all know **why** these things are issues. We may not agree with the people who make them issues (I certainly don't), but it's naive (or worse, fatuous) to pretend that one can't see **why** they're issues.

It also does no good politically (IMHO) either actually not to understand "the other side" or to **pretend** not to understand them.

All it leads to is stereotyped shouting across the barricades. Something like what Orwell called "duckspeak" (in 1984's "Newspeak") -- just sloganeering that might as well be a recording; the words bounce off both sides.

What have we here? Quite unlooked-for, a thoughtful conversation seems to be afoot! Hurrah! I replied:

"I know what you're talking about, but I think you're overgeneralizing in this comment.

"Sure, there's always some determinable why in play, but with many of these issues on the right wing side that "why" really does just amount to straightforward ignorance or idiotic greed or incredibly ugly racism and there is no way to address the reality of the politics that is not vulnerable to the superficial ascription to the left of the accusation of "stereotypical shouting across the barricades" precisely because the reality is brutally stereotypical.

"In such circumstances, trying to propose fact-based harm-reduction policy prescriptions on drug policy, law enforcement, gun regulation, immigration reform, tax policy, addressing climate change, sex education and family planning, infrastructure investment, and so on actually puts you in a surreal position of disadvantage wherein you are not only struggling to advocate for outcomes and mechanisms that require effort and education to understand, which often depend on counter-intuitive insights and knowledges (national budgets aren't the same family budgets, abortions happen less often when abortions and other family planning services become more available, there are some public goods that governments demonstrably provide better than private enterprise does and vice versa, and so on).

"But in addition to this already difficult task you are required to pretend that your opponents are being reasonable when in fact they are just lying or fulminating or simply don't have the slightest idea what they are talking about and are flinging simplistic slogans and distraction around because to call them out on what they are doing exposes you to the charge that you are being unfair and unreasonable to describe the reality that they are being unfair and unreasonable.

"Frankly, it's bullshit, and only evil and stupidity ever benefit from the charade."

Let me point out, by the way, in case that isn't plainly evident from the context and in case a newcomer to the blog hasn't read him testify to his politics, JimF's and my own political commitments overlap quite a bit, and so it is important that readers not leap to dismiss his point out of sympathy for my political convictions here, which Jim largely shares. To my reply, then, Jim, then offered the following comment:
Yes. But:

1) You and I both know that mutual recognition of "facts" requires a shared frame of reference that often doesn't exist between ideologues of the left and right (on matters from abortion and homosexuality to public funding of health care to foreign policy).

2) It is nevertheless possible to recognize a coherent frame of reference which one does not inhabit oneself. Even folks on the right can do this, though they're liable to call their reconstruction of the foreign frame "evil". "decadent", "destructive", "effete" or just plain "stupid", while when the left-wing folks do it they'll use descriptions like "idiotic greed", "ugly racism", or "incredibly ignorant".

3) Both sides repackage what they're hearing from the other side according to their own model of the other side's frame of reference ("yes, of course that's what they'd say").

Actually switching frames of reference is a life-changing experience. It's like leaving a cult. Frequently (especially if it means abandoning a religion) it means cutting oneself off from parents and siblings, erstwhile friends, even spouse and children. How this sort of thing comes about seems to me to have little to do with ordinary "political discourse". Going to school, having unrestricted access to books, the Web (and YouTube) seems to catalyze the transition for some people once it's started, but the seeds of change seem to come from somewhere else.

Yes, **after** such a personality-shattering experience it's possible to "hear" heretofore unassimilable "facts".

It's a strange thing. There are some interesting stories on YouTube (from ex-Mormons, ex-Scientologists, and the like, or people from conservative religious backgrounds who have had to face their own, or a child's, homosexuality). There's one gay male couple (with two adopted children) on YouTube, one of whom is a cop (and he looks and talks like a cop, too!) -- a big, beefy guy from a conservative religious family who excelled at sports to please his father (who has had nothing to do with him since he came out), and who once denied his sexual orientation to the point of getting a girl pregnant in high school. In one video, this guy describes himself as a "recovering Republican". I had to smile at that. But that's the kind of crucible it takes to change people, it seems to me. Homosexuality (absolutely not being able to conform, no matter what) is one sort of crucible. Experience in war can be another. E.g., George Orwell's disillusionment with the Communist Party as a result of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Or Gordon Livingston's ("Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart") disillusionment in American foreign policy as a result of serving in Viet Nam (after graduating from West Point).

But most folks, most of the time, are just comfortably singing along with the choir, well insulated from the discords coming from the band next door.

To which, I replied in turn:

"Doesn't the metaphor of "switching frames of reference" you mobilize here rely for its force on the implicit recognition of a world susceptible of actually warrantable descriptions, which you then disavow in analogizing all convictions, however warranted, as cult-like?

"You are right to point out that all conviction corrals the believer into communities of belief with a yield of both pleasures and pressures that are more addictive [eg, psychosomatic, conferring belonging, positional legibility, comfort, etc.] than strictly argumentative, and that respect for argument demands vigilance to these.

"But this is hardly the only consideration that matters to those who would be reasonable, and in some conflicts -- such as one that arrays the environmentalist against the corporate-funded climate-change denialist, the harm-reduction family planning or drug policy maker against the Christianist moralist, the civil libertarian and antigay or white racist bigot -- the comparable force of their conviction and the emotional/moral support they get from their fellows is scarcely more important than the actual substance that distinguishes them, both in terms of the actual propositional content of their belief, and the matter of the demonstrable relation of their different beliefs to the demonstrable criteria that warrant scientific beliefs as best on offer or criteria that warrant ethical beliefs as equitable-in-diversity or political/policy beliefs as optimally efficacious as constrained by equitability-in-diversity.

"There are plenty of conflicts in which I am the first to insist -- as you are here, if I am reading you aright -- that we need to identify imaginatively with the point of view of interlocutors the better to learn from them and reconcile with them, but there are also times when one has to choose sides and when to refrain from so doing is no different from choosing the side with which one is substantially least sympathetic in fact."

There are a lot of people on the right who claim to want to cut spending but not to cut any services from which they or anybody they know actually benefit, which means they don't want to cut any services worth mentioning. There are a lot of people on the right who trust scientific experts when it comes to their own life-or-death surgical procedure but not when it comes to climate scientists declaring life-or-death consequences of pointlessly polluting industrial-extractive processes, but cannot account for just why expertise counts in the one case and not the other. There are a lot of people on the right who identify with the firefighting and emergency medical heroes of 9/11 right up until the moment they try to organize to protect benefits they received to the cost of salaries in free negotiations according to constitutional rights more clearly specified by the first amendment than the ones they themselves bark about in the second, just as their are a lot of people on the right who scream about the protection of children from suffering and harm right up until the day they are born at which point any question of protection and support for the actually living becomes despised parasitism and welfare coddling. There are folks on the right who despise the ACLU but depend on it to support their right to free expression in courts of law, who despise the United Nations and social justice organizations but who selectively quote their decisions and rely on their judgments whenever they support any of their own causes, who gorge at the public trough while railing against entitlements, who fulminate about the evils of planned economies and then declare defense the only justified government activity in a world in which Defense demands a fully-fledged planned economy and welfare state to support its activities. There are an awful lot of white-racist war-mongering greedheads who claim to worship above all a certain brown-skinned pacifist champion of the poor...

One cannot seriously claim that one fails to convince such people simply because in one's own contrary convictions -- even when they are as conscientiously warranted by scrupulously supported consistent clear public arguments as may be -- one has failed adequately to imaginatively inhabit the self-serving convolutions of greedy lying pathological right wing opponents at their worst. Sometimes what is wanted instead is to make one's own case on its strongest terms, educate, agitate, and organize on their behalf, and prevail over those who oppose you -- ideally in ways from which they too will benefit soon enough, so that in hindsight at any rate they will come to see the error of their ways.

Anybody else want to weigh in?


jollyspaniard said...

As way of retort I have to add that I live in Brighton UK which is an extremely progressive and godless city. So I'm not shouting across the barricades.

Even if I possesed Sarah Palin's extraordinary visual perception I would not be able to see the barricades from my house. I'm actually several thousand kilometers away from the barricades. I haven't rubbed elbows with somebody professing to be anti choice in over a decade.

But something about the anti choice crowd doesn't pass the smell test. If a large group of people thought that a genocide was taking place in their home country wouldn't they do something a bit more substantial than whine about it? You'd expect some kind of armed insurrection. Wouldn't they refuse to have abortions themselves. The reality is that the anti choice crowd are calling it murder but they're not behaving as if it were murder. And they're hardly refraining from having abortions themselves.

jimf said...

Dale asks:

> "Doesn't the metaphor of "switching frames of reference"
> you mobilize here rely for its force on the implicit
> recognition of a world susceptible of actually warrantable
> descriptions. . .

Yes, of course. But's that's because I **inhabit** a frame
of reference (or call it a meta-frame, if you will) that
recognizes the authority of "actually warrantable descriptions",
as do you. (We're talking, of course, about the so-called
"scientific method", as described, to take an example from
my own limited reading, in Susan Haack's _Defending Science
Within Reason_).

> . . .which you then disavow in analogizing all
> convictions, however warranted, as cult-like?

That's not exactly what I was after. I was simply noting
that as a believer in "science within reason", I do not
expect to be able to convince (or even to have a profitable
conversation on certain subjects with) a person who
believes in revealed truths about the "larger questions"
of life (e.g., how did humans, or indeed the universe as
a whole, come into existence and when; what are the
origins of morality; and so on).

In other words, I don't expect to be able to have a
meaningful conversation about such large questions
(which encompass many things in the political sphere as
well, such as the acceptability of homosexuality) with the
people who yell at me to turn to Jesus before it's too late
every morning in the tunnel under Times Square as I'm
on my way to the 7 train.

There are people who reserve a special kind of belief for
matters they regard as sacred that is disconnected from the
kind of reasoning they'd employ when, say, debugging a
computer program. The human mind is quite capable of
such compartmentalization, and it isn't all that different
from the principles of "doublethink" as described by
O'Brien to Winston in the Ministry of Love.

Occasionally the barrier comes down, and the "warrantable
descriptions" part of the reasoning apparatus (such as is used
in figuring out where a leak is coming from, or finding the bug
in a computer program) takes over the whole show, despite
the mind-control safeguards put in place in both recognized-as-
"respectable" religions and not-so-respectable "cults" to
prevent that sort of thing from happening. When that barrier
comes down, it often feels to the person like leaving a cult (see,
for example, Boeing crash-analysis engineer Lyndon Lamborn's
accounts of leaving the Mormon church on YouTube).

But in facing a person firmly ensconced in one of these
"alternate reality" (or "alternate source of truth") belief
systems, frames of reference, whatever you want to call
them, I am well aware that 1) nothing **I** can say is
likely to make any more than the tiniest dent, if that,
in the person's self-reinforcing beliefs 2) nothing I
can adduce, from Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens
or Bertrand Russell or anybody else, is likely to have
any effect either, and 3) despite all that, I can see
how it all fits together for that person. I can understand
perfectly well why they wouldn't want their kids to
hear about evolution or sex in schools, why they wouldn't
want gays to be able to serve openly in the military
or be in the Boy Scouts, and so on and so on.

The world still changes, for all that.

Dale Carrico said...

I was simply noting
that as a believer in "science within reason", I do not
expect to be able to convince (or even to have a profitable
conversation on certain subjects with) a person who
believes in revealed truths about the "larger questions"
of life

I guess I misunderstood the thrust of your point then. It seemed to me you were suggesting that for those who apply scientific standards where these are warranted or logical standards where these are warranted or more parochially situated moral or aesthetic or legal standards where these are warranted, that to have a "productive conversation" with those who refuse to do the same -- even while they are demanding at least some of the time the recognition and status of people who do -- it is the responsibility of those of us who do to enable the false pretense to the contrary of those who do not, where it seems to me this is a functional abdication of reasonableness masquerading as an effort at reasonableness qua tolerance or charity (I mean that in its epistemological reference).

Part of what it means to affirm criteria of warrant as the warrants they are is to act like you mean it when you say they are, and even if we grant that these warrants are historical constructions and context-dependent they still have to be treated as what they are to do what they do. Of course, I happen to pluralize the domains of reasonable belief ascription and their concomitant criteria of warrant and so I find it quite easy to accommodate many positions that typically get straightforwardly dismissed as irrationality by many of the folks who sound like they are offering up intolerant defenses of reasonableness like the one I just offered (that's why I can sound like such a hard-ass and yet still get pilloried as an effete elite aesthete pomo relativist on the other hand in a worst of both worlds sort of way all too typical of the intellectual positions I tend to find my way to).

I certainly do agree with you that there are some people who cannot be reached argumentatively in ways that accord with the criteria of warrant associated with the domain of reasonable belief in play. And, fortunately, quite often it is perfectly right and reasonable to leave them be or ignore them (often these are matters of moral or aesthetic or commercial taste that are quite rightly parochial after all).

But if someone wants to pretend their imperializing moralism is ethically universalizable, or that their personal faith or madness is consensus scientific, or that their commercial interests trump the prior demands of political reconciliation and then not only says these foolish things but also **acts** on them in public places in ways that are a threat to people, then I'm afraid such people must be educated, marginalized, or fought (and possibly institutionalized) so long as they cannot be made to see sense or at any rate act in ways that accede to nonviolent adjudication of such disputes.

Abdications of reasonableness just amount to pre-emptive surrenders to unreasonableness in such matters and such misbegotten strategies should not be misconstrued as tolerant or nonviolent or relativist meta-reasonablenesses of all things. I guess I mis-read you as advocating such a viewpoint.